Wyoming plagued by big-city problem: smog

By Mead Gruver

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, March 8 2011 12:20 p.m. MST

In this Jan. 22, 2010 photo, antelope graze not far from gas drilling rigs in western Wyoming's Upper Green River Basin, where ozone levels last week exceeded the worst days in major U.S. cities last year. Local residents complain of runny eyes, nosebleeds and shortness of breath and say the air is hazy. Gas industry officials say they're taking steps to reduce air pollution.

Mead Gruver, Associated Press

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — Wyoming, famous for its crisp mountain air and breathtaking, far-as-the-eye-can-see vistas, is looking a lot like smoggy Los Angeles these days because of a boom in natural gas drilling.

Folks who live near the gas fields in the western part of this outdoorsy state are complaining of watery eyes, shortness of breath and bloody noses because of ozone levels that have exceeded what people in L.A. and other major cities wheeze through on their worst pollution days.

"It is scary to me personally. I never would have guessed in a million years you would have that kind of danger here," Debbee Miller, a manager at a Pinedale snowmobile dealership, said Monday.

In many ways, it's a haze of prosperity: Gas drilling is going strong again, and as a result, so is the Cowboy State's economy. Wyoming enjoys one of the nation's lowest unemployment rates, 6.4 percent. And while many other states are running up monumental deficits, lawmakers are projecting a budget surplus of more than $1 billion over the coming year in this state of a half-million people.

Still, in the Upper Green River Basin, where at least one daycare center called off outdoor recess and state officials have urged the elderly to avoid strenuous outdoor activity, some wonder if they've made a bargain with the devil. Two days last week, ozone levels in the gas-rich basin rose above the highest levels recorded in the biggest U.S. cities last year.

"They're trading off health for profit. It's outrageous. We're not a Third World country," said Elaine Crumpley, a retired science teacher who lives just outside Pinedale.

Preliminary data show ozone levels last Wednesday got as high as 124 parts per billion. That's two-thirds higher than the Environmental Protection Agency's maximum healthy limit of 75 parts per billion and above the worst day in Los Angeles all last year, 114 parts per billion, according to EPA records. Ozone levels in the basin reached 116 on March 1 and 104 on Saturday.

The Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality urged the elderly, children and people with respiratory conditions to avoid strenuous or extended activity outdoors.

The Children's Discovery Center in Pinedale set up indoor obstacle courses and turned kids loose on computers instead of letting them out on the playground in the afternoon.

High levels of ozone happen in the Upper Green River Basin only during the winter. They result from a combination of gas industry emissions, snow on the ground, bright sunshine and temperature inversions, in which cool air near the ground is covered by a layer of warmer air. Pollution builds up during the day and becomes visible along the horizon as a thin layer of brown smudge — smog — by midafternoon.

People have noticed the air just isn't as clear as it once was.

"It's like maybe when you're not wearing your glasses when you ought to be," said Miller, whose daily commute from her log home includes an eight-mile snowmobile ride just to get to a plowed road.

The gas industry has drilled hundreds of wells in the basin over the past decade and made the basin one of the top gas-producing areas in the U.S.

"Ultimately it comes down to accountability," said Linda Baker, director of the Upper Green River Alliance. "It doesn't seem to me the companies are being very accountable to the residents here." High ozone, she said, gave her a constant nosebleed three days last week.

Crumpley, 68, reported having difficulty on walks and showshoe trips. "You feel a tightness in your chest. You seem to be less able to hold in air. My eyes burn and water constantly, and I've had nosebleed problems," she said.

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